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Top three Elgin City council vote-getters discuss primary results, woeful turnout

A vehicle drives slow pace as it makes its way down Douglas Avenue Elgduring Tuesday's snowstorm. February 26 2013

A vehicle drives a slow pace as it makes its way down Douglas Avenue in Elgin during Tuesday's snowstorm. February 26, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 1, 2013 7:35AM

ELGIN — Second-time city council candidate Toby Shaw was the clear frontrunner in Tuesday’s primary election for a two-year seat, receiving more votes than the combined total of the second and third place finishers.

But that only amounted to 614 votes in what was a dismal turnout of less than 3 percent of registered voters.

Coming in second in unofficial returns was Craig Dresang with 224 votes. Chin Keomuongchanh placed third with 212 votes.

The top two vote-getters will face off in the April general election. Nine candidates were on the ballot.

With just 12 votes separating the two closest runners-up, Keomuongchanh said he would decide by sometime Thursday if he would challenge the results.

Keomuongchanh pointed to his pre-election efforts to get more voters to register and vote absentee in both Kane and Cook counties. Those votes may still need to be counted, he said Wednesday.

The primary was required by state law because more than four people filed nominating petitions for the spot. Another 13 candidates are vying for four, four-year open council seats in the April 9 election. The council is expanding from seven to nine spots (including the mayor) due to Elgin’s growth to about 110,000 residents.

While turnout in Tuesday’s primary was scant, the three top vote-getters noted it wasn’t from a lack of trying by candidates. All three said they spent countless hours pounding the pavement, visiting with residents, attending functions and promoting themselves on social media in an effort to draw votes.

Only 1,618 ballots were cast in the primary, or about 3 percent of registered voters.

In 2011, only 7,305 Elgin residents — about 13 percent of registered voters — cast ballots in the general election, which saw then-Councilman Dave Kaptain beat longtime incumbent Ed Schock for the mayor’s seat. In that same election, newcomers Tish Powell and Anna Moeller won spots on the council along with incumbent John Steffen.

Assuming numbers approach even that small of a turnout in April, a candidate still will need to get close to 3,700 votes to win the council seat — a considerable way from 614, let alone 224.

As is, Shaw said he has spent about $3,500 on the campaign thus far, or about $5.70 per vote. Dresang said he has spent less than $500, or less than $2.23 per vote. And Keomuongchanh said he spent about $1,000, or roughly $4.72 for each vote he received.

Spending cited

Shaw, 34, theorized that Tuesday’s snowstorm, along with it being a single race, contributed to the weak turnout, and that he and others will have to do even more to educate potential voters to up numbers in the April election.

Shaw said he felt his message — that the city must do a better job to control spending and curb taxes and fees — hit home with those who voted for him.

“The shift from property tax to the creation of several new fees with the 2012 budget was felt by people, particularly senior citizens,” Shaw said.

As examples of spending, while he had no suggestions for specific cuts, he mentioned that the city has to look closely at how to stop losing as much money as it does at facilities such as Hemmens and the East Side Recreation Center.

He felt the $100,000 or so approved to be spent on remodeling the council chambers to accommodate nine instead of the current seven members might be unnecessary, as the clerk and city attorney spots could be moved to tables in front of the panel.

And while offering no way to fund such work beyond looking at spending cuts first, he is wary of a study the city recently commissioned that might lead to a stormwater utility tax. The tax would be based on the amount of pavement on a property as a way to fund ongoing and long-overdue sewer separation projections in older parts of Elgin.

Shaw, who works as a database manager for a cellular phone business, describes himself as a traditional Republican-style conservative but said that “when representing an entire city, that is not as in play as much.”

Staying positive

Dresang, too, felt the weather — along with it just being a primary for one of the five council seats up this spring — contributed to the anemic turnout.

He felt those who voted for him did so because of his focus on the facts and a positive future for Elgin.

Dresang, 50, noted that, contrary to claims by some that Elgin has a spending problem and is fiscally irresponsible, bond rating agencies have given the city a AAA bond rating because of conservative fiscal management and how it has wisely maintained a budget surplus. And he doesn’t think there is a person on the current council or working for the city who would disagree that they have to look closely to make sure all spending is prudent.

Dresang labels himself a fiscal conservative and a social progressive. His issues moving forward would be ensuring more balances and a reasonable approach to strategic and budget planning while addressing quality-of-life issues including stabilizing neighborhoods, enhancing home values, nurturing the arts, building business, parks and green space.

“The key is finding balance,” he said.

Dresang said something that sets him apart from Shaw is the experience his 25-year career has given him. Dresang, a vice president of marketing for a hospice care organization, said he is involved with a team that oversees a $30 million budget, working with local and state legislators, and that has taught him to find common ground and to collaborate.

Despite the turnout, “a positive is that there were nine people in the race for one seat who represented a good part of Elgin’s diverse demographics across the board.”

As such, if elected in April, Dresang would become the first openly gay member of Elgin’s city council, much as John Dalton of Elgin was elected the first openly gay judge in Illinois outside Cook County last fall.

“I don’t think being gay is relevant to anything in the race,” Dresang said.

He noted that he lived in Oak Park before moving to Elgin and from his experiences finds Elgin more progressive and diverse.

People focused

Of that diversity, if Keomuongchanh, 50, decides to challenge Tuesday’s apparent results, succeeds in doing so and then goes on to win in the spring, he would become Elgin’s first Lao American council member.

Like Shaw, Keomuongchanh said he is “a conservative guy, but am able to work across parties. Taking care of people is the mission.”

If he does face Shaw, Keomuongchanh said, “He is a quality candidate, and I would have to revisit what our differences are.”

Keomuongchanh said the major issue facing Elgin is continued high unemployment, and he mentioned the imminent closing of the U.S. Can facility in the city as an example.

“They’ve already let go a majority of the workers. There are about 20 employees left, and they’ve been told they will be let go by the end of March or in April,” he said.

Elgin’s diversification of its revenue stream to lower property tax but add fees is being felt by such people and by seniors, Keomuongchanh said.

Early Wednesday morning, Keomuongchanh, an insurance agency owner, was on his way to Springfield to lobby with others as part of the Asian American Caucus. Keomuongchanh was part of a voter drive last year that registered about 600 people from the Lao American community in the Elgin area.

“I was surprised by the low turnout,” he said. “It was a little disappointing. I thought people would be more engaged, with a first-time Lao America candidate that more would get involved.”

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